The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has told shippers that the Mississippi River could be closed to barge traffic as soon as next week.
The river must be at least 9 feet deep to maintain a channel for commerce, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The latest forecasts indicate that the water could fall beneath the required minimum depth Jan. 3 or 4 in the Thebes area about 125 miles south of St. Louis. Contractors are currently working in that area to remove rock pinnacles from the river bottom in effort to keep the waterway open to traffic.
Michael J. Toohey, president and CEO of the Waterways Council Inc., said the federal government must act now to avoid economic disaster on the river. Commerce leaders have been pushing for water in the Missouri River to be released in to the Mississippi to keep the water level higher. Government leaders have resisted that request because it would cause problems for people and the environment upstream.
"The Corps' rock pinnacle removal and dredging work and our collective prayers for rain have not produced enough water to sustain navigation on the Mississippi River and so the administration must act to avert a closure," Toohey said. "We have been urging action all along and the time is now to release needed water or we will have run out of time on this national crisis.
"The nation's shippers, farmers, manufacturers and operators have been feeling the impacts of this emergency, with canceled orders, lost exports to market, and higher prices to consumers, but unless water is provided now to avert a shutdown, those impacts will increase significantly," Toohey said.
Tom Allegretti, president and CEO of the American Waterways Operators, agreed.
"Unless the administration takes action now, the nation risks 60 days or more without waterborne commerce on the mid-Mississippi River," Allegretti said. "We urge the White House to authorize the release of additional water immediately to maintain navigation on our country's busiest and most important waterway."
By Jan. 12 or 13, water is expected to reach about 7 feet deep at Thebes. According to the shippers, very few towboats can operate at that level, no matter how lightly their barges are loaded.
About $7 billion worth of goods flow on the Mississippi in December and January, according to shippers. They include:
* More than 7 million tons of agricultural products worth $2.3 billion;
* More than 1.7 million tons of chemical products worth $1.8 billion;
* 1.3 million tons of petroleum products worth over $1.3 billion;
* More than 700,000 tons of crude oil worth $534 million; and,
* About 3.8 million tons of coal worth $192 million.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Colin Fogarty said river closures are rare and he is still hopeful of the Mississippi remaining open in the coming weeks.
"There has not been an instance, that I am aware of, in which the entire Mississippi River has been closed," Fogarty said. "Certain sections have been closed for brief periods of time. Brief closures at specific locations may become necessary in the coming days to ensure safe navigation can continue, however, there are none planned at this time."
Fogarty said the water level between St. Louis and Cairo was temporarily boosted last week by a release of water from Carlyle Lake. But he said adding water from reservoirs is a short term fix and that the only thing that is going to solve the low water crisis on the river is the addition of a whole lot of water from rain or melting snow to the north. He said he doesn't expect that to happen until the spring.
According to the National Weather Service, the Mississippi River has dropped more than 3 feet below normal at St. Louis and it is dropping rapidly. The river could reach 4 feet below by Saturday and 5 feet below by New Year's Day. The record low for St. Louis is 6.2 feet below set in 1940.
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 239-2626.